Risks of Social Exclusion for Rural Older People Explored in New Report

Monday, 20 February 2012

A new report from NUI Galway finds that while growing old in rural areas can be a positive experience, there are also a number of factors which may lead to older people experiencing social exclusion.

The report, ‘Social Exclusion and Ageing in Diverse Rural Communities’, from
NUI Galway’s Irish Centre for Social Gerontology is the first of its kind on the island of Ireland. It takes an in-depth look at exclusion for older people living in rural settings across Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The report identifies five areas where older people living in rural areas can be excluded. These domains of exclusion are: (1) social connections and social resources; (2) services; (3) transport and mobility; (4) safety, security and crime; and (5) income and financial resources.

The report, which was launched today (20 February) at NUI Galway by Ireland’s Minister of State for Disability, Equality, Mental Health and Older People, Kathleen Lynch TD, and Northern Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O’Neill MLA.

“Our findings suggest that an older person’s experience of exclusion across these domains is influenced by such factors as individual disposition, life transitions, place characteristics, and macro-economic forces. It is this influence that determines the depth and extent of exclusion experienced. We came across many older people living in what would appear to be difficult circumstances, but a sense of belonging and keeping connected in their communities helped to maintain their quality of life,” explained one of the authors of the report, Professor Eamon O’Shea, of NUI Galway’s Irish Centre for Social Gerontology (ICSG).

Older people in the study were generally happy with their lives and with where they lived and were optimistic about the future. However, it was clear to the authors how service depletion, weak social connections and older people’s low expectations can be significant issues.

In response to the research, Minister Lynch TD said: “This most informative study on social exclusion and ageing in diverse rural communities in Ireland will be of great importance to planners and policy makers, service providers and community workers – North and South – in planning and implementing intervention strategies that target loneliness and social isolation in rural areas. This research is a welcome contribution to European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations, and provides valuable insights into the lived experiences of older people. It tells us of the great diversity within the older population as a whole in Ireland and the very valuable contribution of older people to society. The research reminds us that good communities, good neighbours and attachment to place make life better – irrespective of personal circumstances.”

Minister O’Neill MLA welcomed the publication of the cross-border document stating: “As Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, and as a rural dweller, I am acutely aware of the difficulties facing many people living in our rural communities and particularly the elderly. This all-island research report on Social Exclusion and Ageing in Rural Communities highlights those many difficulties so that informed action can be taken. I congratulate the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology and the Healthy Ageing in Rural Communities (HARC) Research Network for this work.”

Minister O’Neill went on to say: “Later this week I will be formally launching the ‘Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation’ framework which provides a package of some £16 million over the next four years to help the most vulnerable rural dwellers facing poverty and social isolation.”

The research calls for more innovative ways to support local areas to assist and engage older people in rural society and presents recommendations in order to assist in this task and to reduce the potential for older people to be excluded in rural communities.

Speaking at the event, Dr Kieran Walsh of the ISCG said social exclusion is a complex phenomenon: “With this work we are closer to understanding how it can affect older people’s lives in rural communities. For instance, a person who experiences a transition into ill health, and who has recently moved to a remote community, may find it more difficult to establish social connections. Alternatively, an individual with ill health who has developed a capacity for coping and who lives in a place with a strong sense of community may have less difficulty in maintaining social connections. Or, indeed, a person may be socially included, but be excluded in terms of service access.”

Professor Scharf, Director of the ICSG, added: “With the ageing of our rural communities, and the increasingly difficult economic climate, we must be aware of how the diversity of people and places can intersect to produce both inclusion and exclusion.”

Dr Roger O’Sullivan, Director of the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland (CARDI) - funder of the research, commented: “People who live in rural areas and experience exclusion are often invisible to society and this is particularly true for older people. With the launch of this report today those developing policy and services now have substantial evidence at hand to help make rural Ireland a good place to grow old.”

The report authors were Dr Kieran Walsh, Professor Eamon O’Shea and Professor Tom Scharf, from the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology at NUI Galway. The research was completed in collaboration with the Healthy Ageing in Rural Communities (HARC) research network (www.harcresearch.com), which is a cross-border interdisciplinary initiative involving  NUI Galway, Queen’s University Belfast, Rural Community Network and FORUM Connemara.

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Author: Marketing and Communications Office, NUI Galway
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